Loss of Faith, the Jewish Atheist, and Working Class Rebellion in ‘Christ in Concrete’

In yesterday’s post on Pietro Di Donato‘s Christ in Concrete, I had noted how Annunziata and Paul’s session with the medium, the Cripple, could perhaps be viewed as an affirmation of the power of the life-sustaining myth. There is a hint of irony in that suggestion, because among the central messages of Di Donato’s impassioned novel are the loss of faith, the failure of Catholicism, the disillusionment of Paul with the myths that are supposed to sustain him; in their place, Donato tells us, what will sustain Paul is the companionship of his fellow workers. The final scenes of the book, which include the crucifix-crushing encounter between Paul and his mother, make the loss of faith explosively clear, but the tension, the tautening and ultimate snapping of the ties between the Church, Paul’s faith, and Paul has been building for a while, perhaps ever since his pleas for charitable assistance from the Church were rebuffed.

One of the interesting features of the novel for me–one that I did not see addressed in Fred Gardaphé‘s introduction to the Signet Classic edition–is the role played by Paul’s friendship with the Russian Jew Louis Molov, the ‘somber boy with the shaved head’ who lives with his family in their neighborhood. When Paul first encounters Molov, he has just ably defended himself against an attack by the local bullies. Fascinated and intrigued, Paul goes to meet him and finds Louis reading a book, and not just any old one: Thorstein Veblen‘s The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class. (Louis, incidentally, is in the eighth grade! Talk about precocious.) Louis tells Paul about his brother, Leov, who met his death at the hands of the Czar’s soldiers because he tried to ‘organize the peasants against the war’ and ‘made a great speech against the Czar and his war.’

Later, as their friendship blooms, and as they visit the cemetery where Geremio, Paul’s father, is buried, Louis introduces Paul to a shocking idea, one that follows on the heels of his suggestion that Paul’s father’s death and his brother’s had something in common:

“Do you think that your father and these other men buried here will someday rise from their graves and cry revenge?”

“…Revenge…why?”

“Why? Did they want to die?”

“…Want to?”

“My brother Leov did not want to die. They shot the life out of him against his will, but he sprang up from his grave and destroyed the Czar and all his soldiers!”

“He was dead…?”

“They killed him–but his spirit threw the grave aside and paid back the murders of centuries!”

“That was the spirit of God’

“That was the spirit of my brother’s ideals.”

“I don’t understand. Your brother was dead. Only God could have punished his killers.”

Louis’s gray eyes studied Paul.

“What God?”

“Why…God…”

“Whose God?”

“Whose God? There’s only one God.”

“Where?”

“Everywhere.”

“You have seen your father?”

“Yes…”

“And you know your mother?”

“Of course.”

“And you love them?”

“Why, yes.”

“Have you seen God?”

Paul felt something weakening him.

“Louis–haven’t you–don’t you believe in God?”

The gray eyes turned full on him.

“There is no God.”

I hope it is clear why this aspect of the book is interesting: the choice, on Donato’s part, to make a precocious  Jewish boy the vehicle for the delivery–from a land and faith far from Paul’s own–of the messages of working class rebellion and atheism. In doing so, Di Donato is explicitly acknowledging what might have been a trope of his time.

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